As Baltimore officials ponder the possibility of holding an NFL exhibition game in 1992, commissioner Paul Tagliabue appeared give the city's expansion hopes a boost by saying the "sentiment" among the expansion committee members is to give one of the two expansion teams in 1994 to a city that lost a team.
Tagliabue's statement, which contradicted comments he made last month at an owners' meeting in Minneapolis, was made at an appearance before USA Today's editorial board Wednesday.
An NFL spokesman said yesterday the owners haven't made a final commitment, but that the sentiment and "working assumption" of the first expansion committee was that one new city and one old city would get a franchise.
The first expansion committee has been replaced by a second committee that includes three members of the first committee. It will hold its first meeting in New York on July 17.
"That would appear to make the most sense," a spokesman said of the idea of giving one old and one new city a team.
That would mean Baltimore, which lost the Colts in 1984, Oakland, which lost the Raiders in 1982, and St. Louis, which lost the Cardinals in 1988, will vie for one of the two franchises.
But Oakland seems to have faded after a deal fell through to get the Raiders back last year.
Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., appear to be the leading contenders among the new cities, although San Antonio, which is building a domed stadium, is likely to enter the race.
Meanwhile, Baltimore is gearing up to make its expansion bid. Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said that he and Raymond "Chip" Mason will chair a meeting of business and political leaders next week in which various aspects of expansion will be discussed.
Belgrad also said he no longer opposes the idea of holding an exhibition game in Baltimore, though he has not begun the process of contacting teams. In the past, he has said holding a game would distract officials from preparing to bid for a team.
Four of the other leading candidates -- Charlotte, Memphis, Jacksonville and St. Louis -- will all host games this summer, and Belgrad doesn't want it to appear as if Baltimore were ducking a game.
"It deserves serious consideration," he said of the proposal to host a game, which any city can make. "We don't want people to find a reason to be critical of us."
Belgrad said that by August 1992, the field will be cut to the short list, and he expects the city to have no problem selling out Memorial Stadium. The expansion teams are scheduled to be named in the fall of 1992 if there isn't a delay in the timetable.
Belgrad said he would expect it to be more than a game -- more like a Super Bowl celebration of the possibility of the return of the NFL to Baltimore.
Belgrad, though, took no comfort in Tagliabue's statement about an old city getting a team.
"I think the bottom line is going to be the determining factor," he said. Belgrad said the two cities that have the most attractive proposals will get the teams -- and he thinks Baltimore will be one of the top two.
However, two members of the expansion committee, Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns and Rankin Smith of the Atlanta Falcons, both noted it's not automatic that one of the old cities will get a team. Modell said there hasn't been a vote and Smith said there's no formula.
At the owners meeting in Minneapolis, Tagliabue said there had been no discussion of giving teams to old and new cities and "no conversation that registers on my mind.
"I think basically we'll start with a level playing field concept rather than prejudging whether one will be an old city and one will be a new idea," he said in Minneapolis.